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Puerto Ricans seeking federal disability benefits strike out at Supreme Court

Because they don’t pay the same federal taxes, Puerto Ricans can’t get the same benefits, the Supreme Court found. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional Thursday to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from U.S. disability benefits programs. 

The opinion — authored for the 8-1 court by Justice Brett Kavanaugh — said that the Due Process Clause allows but does not require Congress to make Supplemental Security Income benefits to residents of Puerto Rico as occurs with the 50 states. 

“The limited question before this Court is whether, under the Constitution, Congress must extend Supplemental Security Income to residents of Puerto Rico to the same extent as to residents of the States. The answer is no,” the Trump appointee wrote. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, not only the first Puerto Rican but also the first Hispanic or Latina judge to serve on the Supreme Court, was the sole dissenter in the case.  

“In my view, there is no rational basis for Congress to treat needy citizens living anywhere in the United States so differently from others,” the Obama appointee wrote. “To hold otherwise, as the Court does, is irrational and antithetical to the very nature of the SSI program and the equal protection of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution.” 

Jo Luis Vaello-Madero first received supplemental Social Security Income payments in 2012 when he was a resident of New York and then continued to receive them when he moved back to Puerto Rico. But in 2016, the government found out that Vaello-Madero no longer lived in New York and told him he would need to repay the benefits he received for three years while living in Puerto Rico — amounting to over $28,000. 

Vaello-Madero sued, and the courts sided with him every step of the way. The United States then appealed to the Supreme Court on the claim that Puerto Rico’s unique tax status made Vaello-Madero ineligible for SSI benefits enjoyed by other citizens. 

The majority reasoned that because Congress taxes territories like Puerto Rico differently than the states, their benefits will also differ. 

“Just as not every federal tax extends to residents of Puerto Rico, so too not every federal benefits program extends to residents of Puerto Rico,” Kavanaugh wrote. 

Congress would not need to create a dollar-to-dollar comparison of how taxes and benefits apply in the states compared to the territories, the majority concluded. Instead, it just need to have a rational basis for its programs, and the court found it did that here. 

Kavanaugh said, to be eligible for SSI benefits, individuals would have to be residents of the United States, which residents of Puerto Rico are not. 

The court traced Vaello Madero’s position to far-reaching consequences, like forcing Congress to extend many federal benefits programs to residents of territories like it does for states. 

“If this Court were to require identical treatment on the benefits side, residents of the States could presumably insist that federal taxes be imposed on residents of Puerto Rico and other Territories in the same way that those taxes are imposed on residents of the States,” Kavanaugh wrote (emphasis in original(. “Doing that, however, would inflict significant new financial burdens on residents of Puerto Rico, with serious implications for the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican economy. The Constitution does not require that extreme outcome.” 

Sotomayor, who was born in New York City to Puerto Rico-born parents, said that Puerto Rico may not be a state, but its people are U.S. citizens. She argues that the benefits for which they are eligible now are not comparable to those they would receive under SSI. While acknowledging the previous decisions require the acceptance of the majority’s rationale, the cases do not say Puerto Rico’s tax status could justify unequal treatment of its residents. 

“In some cases, it might be ‘reasonable for Congress to take account of the general balance of benefits to and burdens on’ citizens when deciding eligibility for benefits,” Sotomayor wrote. “That is not a rational basis for this classification, however, because SSI is a means-tested program of last resort for the poorest Americans who lack the means even to pay taxes. Residents of Puerto Rico who would be eligible for SSI are like SSI recipients in every material respect: They are needy U. S. citizens living in the United States.” 

Sotomayor also claims that the court’s ruling would mean that Congress could exclude citizens from safety-net programs depending on if where they live pays sufficient taxes. If this were the cases, residents of Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Alaska that pay less than other states would be excluded. 

“Congress has never enacted a uniform, nationalized direct assistance program, and then excluded entire States on the basis that the taxpaying residents of that State do not pay sufficient federal taxes,” Sotomayor wrote. “The Court’s holding today suggests that doing so would be constitutional and not a violation of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection of citizens.”  

During oral arguments in November, the justices had to grapple with their own precedents disenfranchising the constitutional rights of Puerto Ricans. The justices questioned if they would have to overrule a series of the court’s opinions from the 1900s — known as insular cases — that established that the constitution does not fully apply to U.S. territories.  

Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the majority opinion but also addressed the insular cases in a concurring opinion, saying that, while the case didn’t ask the court to overrule the cases, the justices should do so soon. Gorsuch called the insular cases’ flaws “as fundamental as they are shameful” and said they had “no home in our Constitution or its original understanding.” 

“The time has come to recognize that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation,” the Trump appointee wrote. “And I hope the day comes soon when the Court squarely overrules them.”  

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion to opine on the claim that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is “precisely the same” as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. He said the text and history of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause do not support characterizing that provision as an equal protection guarantee. 

The Department of Justice declined to speak about Thursday's ruling. Vaello-Madero’s attorney Hermann Ferre, who is with the firm Curtis Mallet-Prevost, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Government, National

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